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Why Ello Suddenly Went Viral


Last week, as if almost overnight, it seemed like social media startup Ello was everywhere.

The free social network, whose much-discussed manifesto explains why it eschews ads and user data collection, was seeing about 31,000 new signups per hour with no signs of slowing down at the end of last week. The site is invite only, and the codes are even going on eBay for as much as $100

Related: How to Make Your Content Go Viral

The Burlington, Vt.-based social network was co-founded by artists Todd Berger, Lucian Föhr, and Paul Budnitz. Neither of them is a first-time entrepreneur: Berger and Fohr run a design firm, and Budnitz is the founder of Budnitz Bicycles and art toy company Kidrobot.

The site launched in beta on Aug. 7 with a user base of 90 people and was growing steadily before it suddenly went into overdrive. If you read any news last week, you were guaranteed to have seen some headline about how Ello is rapidly growing and gearing up to be the anti-. Word of the fledgling social network was everywhere.

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Berger told he doesn't even consider Facebook a social network: "For us [Facebook] is an platform, not a social network. On Facebook, the advertiser is the customer, and you are the product that’s bought and sold…You can be anyone you want on Ello."

Related: How These 10 Marketing Campaigns Became Viral Hits

Berger and the Ello team chalk the recent exposure up to the vocal criticism directed at Facebook's legal name policy by the LGBT and drag community. Drag queens Sister Roma and Lil Miss Hot Mess were among many in the community who found their profiles deactivated by Facebook because they used stage names, not real names. "Things really started to explode about 10 days ago when members of the San Francisco LGBTQ community began coming over because Facebook had been kicking them off their network. That led to more interest within the larger creative community, and people in general." Ello started seeing a significant rise in users on Sept. 23. 

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The social network's burst of attention begs the perennial question: how do you parlay going viral into actual longevity? In the case of Ello, the company's success seems to stem from meeting the zeitgeist at the right moment. Berger holds that the positive response, and what will keep people invested, is the site's point of view. "[We're] a values-based company with a mission. People appreciate that."

Berger says the company has been "working around the clock" to properly field user requests while "rolling out lots of new features, including privacy related features to improve user safety and security."

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Despite the anti-Facebook comparisons, Ello will likely not spell the end for the social giant. However, it will be interesting to see whether platforms like it and continued activism will compel it to alter its fairly entrenched policies. It remains to be seen whether future platforms in this space will need to take Ello's tack to make a dent. 

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